Diane Arbus (born Diane Nemerov in 1923 to a wealthy Jewish family) was an American photographer of Russian origins, well known for her black and white images of marginalized subjects. She especially immortalized people with physical or social anomalies, such as circus freaks, giants, little people, and trans-genders, but also nudists, subjects from suburban families and celebrities.
Her work is all at once bizarre and psychologically complex. She used techniques of photojournalistic or documentary photography to represent her unlikely subjects - in which she found intrigue and beauty - into their natural environments, an expedient that somehow altered and overturned the perception of identity and anatomic and social normality, making the viewer feel uncomfortable rather than the opposite. In fact, when the MoMA in New York bought and exposed a number of her photos in 1967, the public received them with indignation and spit on her work. Her portraits of people that were not considered fit to stand before the lens of a camera took documentary photography to a different level.
Diane Arbus was raised in New York City with her siblings in a series of lavish homes surrounded by maids and governesses, but she felt oppressed in her own community and her personal suffering made her feel akin to social outcasts. Her whole life, indeed, she would try to leave behind and outdistance her family and her upbringing, rejection that evolved into depression episodes and a longing for experiences in the underground social world. The observation through photography of social and anatomic deformities became for Diane a way to explore her own deformation away from the immaculate veil of the social mask. There is no hope for a sort of redemption in her pictures, just witness. It was not about criticizing society in its façade and uniformity; it was rather about being part and participating into other ways of being, particularly for her who, even before being an artist, was a woman who felt tragically out of place. To photograph was her way to admit her feeling of estrangement, as well as a personal rebellion, a struggle against herself and the world and an act of emancipation.
As mentioned above, she frequented environments crawling with bizarre people among which giants, dwarves, strippers, transgender performers, prostitutes, disabled and nudists. Diane did not just document such strangeness, but she dived into it creating with her subjects deep bounds of friendship and complicity, and she photographed all sorts of oddities with no voyeuristic malice, but with a full awareness of the beauty that lies within diversity and within the freedom to live without constrained superstructures one’s own body and sexuality.
She was awarded her first recognition, a scholarship at the Guggenheim Foundation, in 1963. Diane committed suicide on July 26, 1971 at the age of 48, following an exhausting research carried out through her tormented portraits. Today, her work is preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., among others.